By Rajan Philips –
2019 is the year of the pig in the Chinese zodiac. A rather inauspicious creature for good omens for the traditional April New Year in Sri Lanka and South Asia, the pig symbolizes not only laziness but also good behavior and wealth to the Chinese. It may not mean much in China that 2019 is also the year of the elections in nearly a hundred countries in the world. India has just started its elephant walk of an election, after Pakistan and Bangladesh finished theirs last year. Just this week, the Maldives completed its parliamentary elections with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP’s) led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solis winning a landslide victory. The MDP’s win has come on the heels of President Soli’s election in the presidential election last September and completes the defeat of former strongman and President, Abdulla Yameen. The change of guard in Malé has been described as a ‘shot in the arm’ to India in its rivalry with China for exerting influence in the Indian Ocean.
Among the world’s election monitors, Sri Lanka is listed to have its presidential election this year. That may change if President Sirisena decides to ask the Supreme Court and gets its nod that he can go on till 21 June 2020, five years from the date the 19th Amendment became law, and not five years from date of his election on 8 January 2015. The President may have other thoughts after what happened to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Pasadena, California. The former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence was on his periodical sojourn in the US when he was surprised by the serving of formal notices for two civil damages cases on behalf an alleged murder victim (Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge) and an alleged torture victim (Roy Samathanam).
Regardless of their legal potency in California courts, the two cases can be a source of significant political nuisance and embarrassment in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa family and the Sri Lanka Podujana Party will have to figure out what to do with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announced candidacy. President Sirisena or his bumbling advisers may try to use the new development to make one more pitch to Mahinda Rajapaksa to nominate Sirisena as the SLPP-SLFP candidate and avoid any and all risks of a Gotabaya candidacy. Team Ranil must be watching these developments with more than amusement. Are the planets finally turning in their favour? Detractors will counter and say: if pigs can fly! Astrologers who will have their work cut out may want to find out if 2019 being the year of the pig will have any say on the planets above.
A number of ASEAN countries and about a dozen African countries are also holding elections this year. Tiny Israel just re-elected nasty Netanyahu as Prime Minister for a record fifth time. The European parliament will be having its elections in May, with Britain likelier than not to take part in the election, all the while agonizing over the question: to leave or not to leave. Ukraine is half-way through its presidential election. Elections are also due in about two dozen European countries including Russia, Norway, and three of the four so called PIGS countries of the EU: Portugal, (Italy went to the polls last year), Greece and Spain.
Canada and Argentina are among the countries in the Americas to have elections in 2019. Canada’s Justin Trudeau who won a spectacular victory in 2015, has had his sunny-ways and feminist credentials seriously dented by two highly accomplished women who resigned from his cabinet on a matter of principle and forced his hands to expel them from the government parliamentary group. The two former Ministers have challenged the legality of their expulsion but have no recourse to courts. One of them, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is an acclaimed leader of Canada’s First Nations people and was the Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Trudeau’s cabinet. The other, Jane Philpott, is a medical doctor who spent ten years in West Africa working as a physician and developing training programs for health workers. Both have become household names in Canada and their principled stand has broader implications for the rights of parliamentarians against the diktats of party leaders and operatives.
In the US, presidential and congressional elections are not due till November 2020. But the campaign is already in full swing, with Trump in permanent campaign mode and nearly twenty Democrats fighting each other for nomination as the Democratic Party candidate to challenge Trump in the election next year. China has no election worries, but worries of a different kind: the trade war with Trump; its debt driven growth and falling currency; the financial market crises; its ‘frozen’ property market bubble; the retreat of the Made in China 2025 program; and their combined impacts on the private sector, exports, consumption and investment which have begun to stagnate after leading China’s rise as America’s economic rival over twenty years.
In electoral democracies, such worries have become the basis for electoral bidding wars between political contenders. Look at the political tug-of-war over Brexit in Britain. In China, President Xi Jinping is firmly entrenched in power apparently for as long as he wants to remain so. What seems to matter more to the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not the power of Xi Jinping in China, but the power of China in the world. President Trump would love to be America’s Xi Jinping, and he has been quite open about it. Trump is not alone.
There are aspiring as well as already accomplished strong men in quite a few countries: Viktor Orban (Hungary), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Mohammad bin Salman (Saudi Arabia), Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), Bashar al-Assad (Syria), Recep Erdogan (Turkey), and Nicolas Maduro (Venezuela). President Sirisena is an open admirer of Philippines’ President Duterte and so is Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Donald Trump. Didn’t the Rajapaksas try to entrench their hold on Sri Lanka through the 18th Amendment? Haven’t their fellow travelers suggested that 18A will be brought back if the Rajapaksas return to power in 2019-2020?
Shadow of Fascism
As India starts its mammoth general election, Prabhat Patnaik of The Hindu Group’s Frontline journal has summed up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term as casting a “shadow of fascism” on the Indian society. In a scathing indictment, after comparing Modi’s first term to Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency Rule, Patnaik concludes that Modi’s government is worse in several respects. While Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule was the epitome of the authoritarian state, Modi’s BJP government has gone beyond the state in – unleashing lynch mobs on opponents, enabling a new Hindutva nationalism, “capturing the media” through Hindutva agencies as opposed to earlier state censorship, cozying up to big business, attacking minorities, advancing religious fundamentalism and destroying public institutions. This is quite a criticism of the Modi government and mostly valid, but political circles in Sri Lanka might wonder why The Hindu Group often goes soft on the Rajapaksas. Their shadow may not loom as large as Modi’s, but it is as significant given the 50:1 proportion between India and Sri Lanka.
There is more to India’s 17th Lok Sabha elections involving 900 million eligible voters, than Prime Minister Modi. Voting began last Thursday, April 11, in the first of seven phases of voting and will close more than a month later on May 19. The results to the 545 Lok Sabha seats will be known on May 23. India’s 29 states with varying numbers of Lok Sabha seats will have their own intensely fought battle lines beneath the overarching electoral alliances of the governing BJP and the opposition parties lead by a resurgent Congress Party. The 2014 elections were a stunning victory for Modi over a divided opposition. This time there are reported fissures in the BJP alliance that won 325 seats in 2014. The BJP is poised to lose seats in the seat-rich states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which it swept in the last elections. The southern states rebuffed the Modi magic and the Hindutva advances in the last elections, and they are not warming up to Modi four years later and with much reduced charisma and charm. The predictions are that Modi will win a second term with a reduced majority.
The Congress was decimated in the last elections and Rahul Gandhi the heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was written off for good. Both are back and in fighting form. In state elections last November-December, the Congress rallied to win three states in middle India, directly defeating incumbent BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It is hoping to regain its lost presence in the south in the current elections. Rahul Gandhi is contesting in two constituencies – his regular seat, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh, and Wayanad, in Kerala. Wayanad also borders the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and Gandhi’s run there is seen as Congress strategy to boost its chances in the south. Even if the Congress were to double its score from the last elections, it will merely move the needle from 44 seats to 88 seats, enough to be official Opposition but nothing more.
Youth unemployment and farmer distress, which have taken the shine off Modi’s economic charm, are now both major election issues that are likely to cost the BJP seats in the current elections. In response, Modi and the BJP have campaigned as the custodians of India’s national security against threats from Pakistan and Islamic terrorism. The Kashmir attack in February by Islamic militants and India’s retaliatory air strike inside Pakistan became routine BJP talking points during the campaign. A new Modi government with a reduced majority will also face a different and restive political landscape from what it encountered four years ago.
2019 being the year of the pig may be of little consequence in India, or for that matter anywhere. For the history buff, however, the 12-year cyclical recurrence of the pig’s year provides fascinating as well as macabre coincidences with Sri Lanka’s historical milestones: 1935 – the founding of Sri Lanka’s first political party, the LSSP; 1947 – the first parliamentary elections; 1959 – the death of SWRD Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka’s first political assassination; 1971 – the JVP insurrection, another first; 1983 – the island’s first and lasting black hole; 1995 – Chandrika Kumaratunga completes first year in office as the first non-UNP President; 2007 – the war goes aerial before crashing two years later; and 2019 – ten years after the war, another election year. Happy New Year!